It's 1949 in Santa Rosa, California, but for Ed Crane (Billy Bob
Thornton), the time and place is irrelevant. Ed trudges the rim of
purgatory; he works among people, eats with them and is even married to
one, but rarely does he actually connect with another human being. "I
don't talk much," Ed says, but his internal narrative, some of which we
get to hear, goes on virtually non-stop. In his flat affect, he
describes those around him, rarely making overt value judgments, but
almost always describing behaviors generally considered offensive.
Ed cuts hair professionally next to an affable fellow (Michael
Badalucco) who chatters endlessly. "I worked in a barber's shop," Ed
states during his narrative, "but I never considered myself a barber."
After a long, dreary day of non-barbering, he returns home to his
alcoholic wife Doris (Frances McDormand). Although some measure of
tenderness exists between the two (he appears nearly content while
gently shaving her legs in the tub), Ed has not had sex with Doris in a
Doris has not sat idly by, electing instead to have an affair with Big
Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), her boss at Nirdlinger's Department
Store. Ed is fully aware of the relationship, but does nothing about it
until a customer with a bad rug (Jon Polito) tells him about dry
cleaning, a futuristic way of cleaning clothes using chemicals instead
of water ("No shrinkage!"). During an after-hours meeting with the man,
Ed is put off when the fast talker makes a pass at him, but remains in
the room, intrigued at the notion that he, for $10,000, could become a
silent partner in the cutting edge world of dry cleaning. To raise the
money, he comes up with a simple, sweet idea: He'll blackmail Big Dave
over his affair with Doris.
The blackmail plotline twists and turns appropriately enough for a
noirish, Hitchcockian thriller. Far more intriguing, though, is the
drama in Ed's head. Can a being so riddled with angst, so disconnected,
so utterly lost, find a way to rejoin his brethren? Outside Ed is quiet,
but you can almost hear the soul inside shouting "Oh brother, where art
Movies by the Coen brothers almost always plant a memorable image or two
in the permanent records section of your head. Images like John
Goodman's head popping out of a hole in the ground in "Raising Arizona"
or the flaming hotel hallway from hell in "Barton Fink." Images like The
Dude floating down a bowling alley to the psychedelic strains of "Just
Dropped In" during "The Big Lebowski," or George Clooney being dragged
backwards out of a moving train car in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "The
Man Who Wasn't There" offers a series of arresting visuals that play off
the film's dramatic lighting and superb black and white photography.
From the twirling mini-barber pole at the beginning of the film to the
prison objects hovering on a sea of white at the end, the production
looks absolutely great.
Thank God for the pretty pictures, too, because "The Man Who Wasn't
There" adopts the deliberate pacing of Ed, which makes for some slow
going. During the sluggish parts, I had time to savor the
cinematography, the surface plot, the superb acting (especially by
Thornton, who underplays his role masterfully) and Ed's quiet
desperation while mulling over some recurring questions about the Coens.
I wonder if the brothers view their characters (and the rest of
humanity, for that matter) with affection or contempt. They seem more
clinical than ever this time around, leaning too much on their actors to
humanize their carefully arranged displays (Even "Fargo," the Coen film
most embraced by the general public, was populated by a series of wicked
caricatures, with Frances McDormand giving a performance so exceptional
that it warmed up the whole film).
In the latter portion of "The Man Who Wasn't There", attorney Freddy
Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) relates a theory that the closer you
study something, the less you will see. Could this be a suggestion from
the Coens that we should stop trying to figure them out and simply enjoy
their latest exercise in style over substance? Or are they artists with
important things to say who toss in glib statements and outrageous
visuals to brighten up their grim view of the human condition?
I lean more towards the former than the latter, but remain a Coen
brothers faithful either way. Given the choice of having Joel and Ethan
test my patience and watching your average pre-chewed Hollywood
offering, I'll swallow an aspirin and go with the Coens any day.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott